Web Self-Service Helps 311 Call Centers Reduce Load

Online 311 applications ease burden on overworked call center operators.

by / June 12, 2008

Until 2006, Minneapolis city government was burdened with an inefficient calling system. The Minneapolis Blue Pages telephone book listed more than 270 city government phone numbers. The city received about 16,000 calls daily, with as much as 30 percent being misrouted. The Minneapolis Police Department reported between 60 percent and 85 percent of its calls were misdirected.

In 2006, city officials decided a change was in order and developed a 311 call center to provide an easy access point to city services. The 311 center enabled residents to place a single phone call to reach city agencies, including public works, regulatory services, community planning and economic development, animal control, police, fire and human resources.

Though it was an immediate hit with city residents, the call center outgrew its success as it became overburdened with thousands of calls daily. Within the first month of operation, nearly 9,000 Minneapolitans accessed 311, and within a year Minneapolis 311 received 340,000 calls. In 2007, the annual calls jumped to 440,000. The increasing demand prompted city officials to choose between hiring more staff for its call center or seeking an alternative method to handle the influx.

Efforts to enhance 311 in Minneapolis and elsewhere reflect a larger trend for 311 services nationally. Whether at the city, county or state level, 311 programs often provide Web self-service for citizens to alleviate 911 nonemergency calls, provide better service and save money. These systems are often cited as examples of how governments can do more with less, while simultaneously becoming more cost-effective at the service level.

According to Gartner, an IT research and advisory company, 311 call centers represent a first phase of centralized municipal service. The second phase is a multiple channel service delivery center that usually incorporates phone, Web and mail services. The third phase is utilizing data collected from 311 centers to further enhance service.

Mature 311 system deployments provide data and insight into patterns that allow agencies to take pre-emptive action. However, the third phase is relatively new for governments, with only an estimated 10 percent of the country's municipalities implementing this feature, said Rishi Sood, vice president of Gartner. But more governments that use 311 Web self-service offerings are expected to use data to their advantage in coming years.

"What's really new and next-generation is local governments are starting to mine this data as an intelligent modeling tool to understand trends really quickly and develop a response mechanism to address common city complaints before they become too big," Sood said. "It enables governments to be reactive and proactive to citizens' problems."

Land of Too Many Calls
In 2007, as an alternative to hiring additional 311 call staff, Minneapolis offered a 311 Web self-service feature for citizens submitting minor police reports and requesting public works services. The Minneapolis 311 Web self-service initially offered 13 services, eventually adding 14 more services in August 2007 to keep up with demand.

"With that kind of growth, we had to look at options on how [to] not continue to add staff and still provide the same level of service and quick response," said Don Stickney, assistant director of Minneapolis 311. "We found the key strategy was a robust self-service offering."

City officials soon declared the new Web offering a success: Of the city's nonemergency services available, 21 percent of requests were made online, rather than by phone.

Online service requests include animal control, cable complaints, environmental violations, and crime and pothole reports. At first, the most commonly used Web self-service was for sidewalk snow and ice issues, however, requests for graffiti removal now top the list.

Citizens who utilize the Web self-service can attach a photo to their request to help city officials accurately identify the claim. For each claim, citizens receive e-mails on the status of their requests. The 311 system, in turn, creates a detailed interaction history for every contact, including key milestones tracked by an agency and defined service-level agreements to provide

trend documentation.

The Gartner study on the Minneapolis 311 call center found a significant return on investment when residents used the Web instead of calling 311, which forces agents to log cases on the customer's behalf. The study found that each telephone call or e-mail inquiry cost an estimated $4.50, while Web self-service cost 50 cents per inquiry. Once 311 Web self-service was offered in Minneapolis, 20 percent of cases were logged onto the city's Web site rather than the call center, which has saved thousands of dollars annually.

Minneapolis' 311 call center also proved to be useful during a disaster. When the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007, the 311 call center became the de facto nonemergency public information center, fielding thousands of calls for assistance, status of victims, alternate road routes and media requests.

"We learned a lot through the process, such as how to better utilize our knowledge base," Stickney said. "With the battery of service requests we had, we are now prepared in advance for any disaster situation."

Self-Serve Grows Popular
Currently 65 cities have 311 call centers for nonemergency calls to police and other government offices, according to Dispatch magazine. Like 911, 311 call centers have become inundated with calls, forcing municipalities to keep up with increasing demand. Many municipalities are embracing a supplemental 311 Web self-service that works in conjunction with the 311 call center to alleviate high 311 call volume or provide additional city services.

"I think [311 Web service] is a natural extension to 311 call systems already in place," said Sood. "The 311 call centers have been a very important customer service tool to provide centralized services and centralized points of access to cities. But now the extension to multiple channels on the Web is an important pathway for cities and counties to accelerate services forward."

Like Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Ind., implemented its 311 system, One Call to City Hall, in October 2007 and is averaging about 7,300 calls per month for all departments, with 61,600 calls in 2007. While the Fort Wayne call center previously offered a central calling location, city residents' calls weren't being transferred correctly.

Fort Wayne worked with Lagan Technologies to implement the 311 call center that includes Web self-service. The city initially provided Web services corresponding to the highest-volume case service requests: solid waste, neighborhood code, parking control, street department, property management, sign and signal operations, and right of way. Additional departments will be incorporated in the near future, including animal control, water maintenance and traffic engineering, said Sally Clem, billing systems manager for Fort Wayne and technical manager for Fort Wayne's 311 call center.

The 311 Web self-service option in Fort Wayne allows citizens to log requests after- hours, becoming a 24/7 call center in a way, Clem said. This feature is particularly effective for services like missed trash pick-up and abandoned vehicles, helps expedite service in the city.

"We feel it will be a great advantage to our customers to identify an abandoned car, and they can report that car to us anytime they want via the Web," Clem said. "We feel we will be able to provide better and faster service to our customers if we do it this way."

Clem said the 311 Web self-service will make city departments more efficient since they'll spend less time on the phone and will save money overall. City officials are looking to expand 311 Web service offerings in the coming year. Fort Wayne has been rolling out fiber-to-the-home services, in partnership with Verizon, and it's hoped the service will be an incentive for people to use the Web 311 instead of calling.

"Our departments can concentrate on what they need to do instead of answering the phone, and they can start putting a team together," Clem said. "Overall it makes our departments more efficient, and in being more efficient, saves us money."

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer